English higher education’s access tsar has warned that some universities risk becoming “complacent” on widening participation, after what he described as “one of the toughest” rounds of negotiation yet.
Statistics released by the Office for Fair Access on 23 August reveal that, of 123 higher education institutions that had access agreements approved, nearly three-quarters – 89 – were told that their initial submissions were not ambitious enough.
Les Ebdon, the director of fair access for higher education, said that he had come “close” to refusing some providers’ access agreements, a move that would see their tuition fees limited to £6,165 a year.
Professor Ebdon said that some institutions felt that they could “rest on their laurels” after continual growth in the proportion of students from less advantaged backgrounds entering higher education.
“It has been one of the toughest years of negotiation yet, and we came close to having institutions without an access agreement, which would be a first,” he said. “Why was that? I think it might have been complacency.
“Because people have made progress, they thought they could relax a bit, but I am looking for further, faster progress. I’m looking for acceleration, I’m not looking for people to rest on their laurels.”
Offa’s negotiations resulted in 77 universities – nearly two-thirds – agreeing more stretching targets, and 41 – a third – agreeing to spend more on widening participation.
Professor Ebdon said that the removal of student number controls in England left universities with no excuse not to focus on access.
“Some universities have expanded quite rapidly since the cap came off,” he said. “I saw that as an opportunity for them to increase the number of students from low-participation neighbourhoods, and where that’s not happened, I’m disappointed.”
One of the key sticking points in negotiations was universities’ work with schools to raise attainment for disadvantaged pupils.
Although the government has stepped back from a requirement for higher education institutions to sponsor schools if they wish to charge higher fees – Professor Ebdon described this as “yesterday’s debate” – all universities were required to demonstrate how they were working with the secondary sector to improve attainment.
Some institutions are sponsoring free schools or university technical colleges, while others are contributing to curriculum design, helping to train teachers or sharing resources.
The Offa report also reveals that more than half (52 per cent) of access agreements detailed activities to improve access for white working-class males, who are less likely to enrol in higher education than any other group, up from 34 per cent last year.
Sixteen per cent of providers have set targets in this area, up from 11 per cent last year.
Professor Ebdon said that “the importance of investing in yourself seems to be recognised more by some other communities than traditional working-class communities”.
“If there was a large employer in town, the expectation was that there would be a job for you down that mine or in that factory. That situation no longer applies,” he said. “Universities need to recognise the particular needs of this group: here is a group that may feel that there are not opportunities because the traditional ones are not there; they have got to reach out to them to explain the new opportunities of work in the new economy.”